March 16, 2020

This Post is Old!

The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

An Argument that Divine Knowledge Must be Active

Among the basic assumptions of classical philosophical theology are God's aseity and impassibility. The former is God's attribute of being a se (literally, from Godself) in such a way that God is in no way derived from or dependent on anything else. The latter is God's attribute of being incapable of being acted upon (nothing can do anything to God).

In humans, when we know something we believe it because its true, and in the typical case this 'because' is at least partly causal. (This raises notorious problems for, e.g., mathematical knowledge, but never mind that.) If, however, God is a se and impassible, then this is never true of God. God's knowledge must never be dependent on anything else or in any way have a source outside God.

Today, many theologians and theistic philosophers (notably, but not only, open theists) think that these aspects of the classical picture of God are incompatible with basic religious attitudes. If God cannot be acted upon, then there is no room for (literal) human interaction with God.

Ralph Cudworth's mammoth True Intellectual System of the Universe (1678) contains, among (unmanageably many) other things, an interesting alternative argument for the claim that divine knowledge must be active. The argument does not depend on taking classical philosophical theology at full strength.

One of Cudworth's main aims in the book is to precisely define the difference between theism and atheism, and to identify the major subspecies of each. For Cudworth, polytheism turns out to be neutral on the question of theism and atheism because of an equivocation on the word 'god'. According to Cudworth, the word 'god' (and its translations) has sometimes been used to refer to any intelligence superior to humans. Properly speaking, however, theism and atheism are hypotheses about the first principle of reality, the ultimate explanation of everything. According to (the least silly versions of) atheism, "the only Self-Existent, Unmade and Incorruptible Thing and First Principle of all things is Senseless Matter, that is, Matter either perfectly Dead and Stupid, or at least devoid of all Animalish and Conscious Life" (p. 194). According to theism, on the other hand, "the First Principle and Original of all things...[is] endewed with Conscious Life and Understanding" (p. 195). Note that, for Cudworth, believing that the first principle is material does not necessarily denomination a person an atheist—Cudworth holds that those Stoics who thought the universe as a whole was a living animal were theists. We can also see why polytheism is, on this view, compatible with either theism or atheism: the existence of many superhuman minds tells us nothing about the nature of the first principle of reality. The debate between theism and atheism, according to Cudworth, is about whether the first principle is (or has) a mind. This analysis of the debate was highly influential, being subsequently adopted by Samuel Clarke and George Berkeley.*

It is interesting to me that the characterization of atheism in Cudworth is closely related to a proposition that Graham Oppy (here, for instance) characterizes as a central tenet of naturalism: that mindedness is late and local.

Cudworth catalogues a huge range of arguments for atheism. One of these goes as follows:

If the World were made by any Antecedent Mind or Understanding that is, by a Deity; then there must needs be an Idea, Platform and Exemplar of the whole World before it was made; and consequently Actual Knowledge, both in order Of Time and Nature, before Things. But all Knowledge is the Information of the things themselves known, all Conception of the Mind is a Passion from the things Conceived, and their Activity upon it; and is therefore Juniour to them. Wherefore the World and Things were before Knowledge and the Conception of any Mind and no Knowledge, Mind or Deity before the World as its Cause. (p. 77)

Cudworth attributes this argument to Lucretius.

Mindedness, according to this argument, could only be late and local because in order for there to be knowledge of a thing, there must first be some interaction with that thing, whereby the thing 'informs' the mind. (This is a technical usage of 'informed' coming from Latin: it means that the form of the thing has to get into the mind.) All materials of thought must come in from the outside, passively. If, therefore, we suppose God existing alone prior to the creation, God would have had no materials for thought, and therefore could not have created the universe intentionally. (Intending is a kind of thinking, and requires some conception of that which one intends.)

Much later in his (outrageously long) book, in the course of arguing that Aristotle was a theist, Cudworth gives the following quotation from Aristotle: "in God Intellect is really the same thing with the Intelligibles" (p. 417).** Cudworth provides the following commentary:

the Divine Mind being at least in order of Nature Seniour to All things and Architectonical of the World could not look abroad For its Objects, or find them any where without it self, and therefore must needs contain them all within it self. Which Determination of Aristotle's, is no less agreeable to Theism, than to Platonism; whereas the Atheists, who assert Mind and Understanding as such, to be in order of Nature Juniour to Matter and the World, do therefore agreeably to their own Hypothesis, suppose all Intellection to be by way of Passion from Corporeal things without, and no Mind or Intellect, to contain its Intelligibles, or Immediate Objects within it self. (ibid.)

The central idea is that if it is the very nature of 'intellection' that its materials are passively received, by being acted upon by the objects, then the very notion of a mind prior to all objects known is incoherent. Hence, even the most basic theism commits one to the thesis that there is such a thing as purely active 'intellection'. That is, the theist must claim that God draws the objects of God's thought from within Godself, rather than having to get them from outside. To put it another way: prior to the creation, the objects of God's thought had never had any existence apart from God's thinking of them, and the things that actually exist exist in part because God thought of them. Hence, the divine mind must, as it were, produce its 'intelligibles' from its own resources.

Now, I said this argument did not depend on taking classical philosophical theology at full strength, and I think that's right. At least, it doesn't require starting from full strength aseity and impassibility as basic assumptions, and it certainly doesn't require the strong doctrine of divine simplicity. But it does require an assumption I have so far left implicit, and it has a serious limitation.

The assumption is that, prior to creation, there was nothing outside God's intellect from which God's knowledge could originate. There are (at least) two ways this might be rejected consistent with basic theistic commitments (including creation ex nihilo). First, it might be held that some other aspect of God is the real object of God's knowledge before creation. For instance, if one takes more literally than Aquinas himself does Aquinas's idea that God knows all possible objects by knowing God's own power, and one rejects divine simplicity, then one might think that God's knowledge actually comes from God's power. For instance, God knows that God has the power to create horses because God has the power to create horses. Second, one might hold that platonic objects exist (outside God) prior to creation, so that God's pre-creation knowledge of horseness comes from the Horse Itself, and God's knowledge of particular horses would be subsequent to their creation.

Even supposing one rejects both of those ideas, the limitation of the argument is that it doesn't, by itself, show that this is the only variety of divine knowledge. It might be held (and has been held) that God's knowledge of human free choices (for instance) is radically different from certain other types of divine knowledge.

Despite the hidden assumption and the limitation, the argument seems to me to provide good reason for those who endorse the basic commitment of theism (a mind before the world) to hold that at least some of God's knowledge is as the classical tradition described it.

* Cudworth, Clarke, and Berkeley all explicitly cite Cicero's De Natura Deorum in the works in which they employ this analysis. On p. 195, Cudworth quotes Cicero's character Balbus describing (presumably) God as an animal having "Mentum & Rationem & Sensum". I haven't yet checked the context of the quote to evaluate how likely it is that Clarke and Berkeley could have gotten this characterization of the debate from Cicero independently of Cudworth, but in any event the direct influence of Cudworth seems likely.

** Cudworth gives the Greek, which doesn't explicitly mention God and just says the understanding and that which is understood are the same. The citation is to Metaphysics, book 14, chapters 7 and 9. I have not checked the context to see what Aristotle is really up to.

Posted by Kenny at March 16, 2020 8:01 PM
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